I love nature. It brings me great joy to experience what’s left of our natural world. I love it so much that I got a degree in ecology just because nature is so awesome (it definitely wasn’t for the money). As you probably should know by this point, I also love games. Where games and nature intersect is like a personal little happy place for me. The depiction of the natural world in role-playing games varies widely according to who is playing and which game is being played. All too often, nature is depicted as merely a backdrop for whatever epic tale is unfolding in the foreground, not unlike a painted cloth hung across the back of the stage during a play. I love it when I as a player get to interact with the natural world in meaningful ways, not just shooting at things I want to eat or looking for footprints in the mud. As it falls to the DM to bring the natural world to life, the following paragraphs give several ways for DMs meaningfully encourage interaction between players and their environments as well as creating a more immersive natural world (as opposed to the flat backdrop) in which we can play.
1. Accentuate the weather.
How easy is it for us to take little notice of the weather? The vast majority of us spend most of our time indoors, only needing to be outside when we are transitioning from building to vehicle or vice versa. We might go as far as to check the weather reports each day, but 99.99% of the time the worst of it is little more than an inconvenience to us, perhaps forcing us to wear an additional item of clothing or delay a recreational outdoor activity of some sort (for the 0.01%, where the weather is actually severely bad, see #3).
However, adventurers, be they mages, mutants, or mech pilots, live and die by the weather. Severe weather can kill outright, of course, but that’s painfully obvious. It’s the more subtle ways in which the weather can determine a fate that often get overlooked. For example, a bit of light rain won’t harm you directly, unless you’re the wicked witch of the west, but its effects can be harmful. It might loosen your grip upon your weapon, obscure an impending ambush, dampen your use of fire (be it casting a fireball or lighting a fuse), ruin sensitive equipment (be it a delicate scroll or a high-tech electronic device), get in your eyes as you try to deflect an overhead blow, turn normally acceptable trails into unpassable mud pits, imperil crossings of swollen streams and rivers, or confuse tracks which you’re attempting to follow, to name but a few. And that’s just a little bit of rain! Temperature, precipitation, visibility modifiers (i.e. fog), wind speed/direction, and season all combine to determine the experience of every adventurer who sets foot outside their door to go do adventure stuff.
Now that I’ve hopefully convinced you that weather is a big deal and should be included in your game, let’s go over some practical ways in which to do so. The idea is to have the weather influence the player’s decisions and actions, when appropriate. The most basic thing, which most DMs already do fairly well, is to include the weather in any relevant descriptions given to your players, e.g. “as you walk, a biting wind begins to blow from the north, turning an already chilly day frigid.” As a player, this is an opportunity to take the lead in incorporating it into your role-playing, e.g. “we stop the march, set up camp, and light a fire to ward off the chill” or “I pull my cloak tighter around my shoulders and press on.”
It takes an experienced group of role-players to base their decisions on a description rather than something in the mechanics, so if need be DMs should implement reasonable rules regarding the weather. These are highly contextual and will vary from game to game, but creativity on the DM’s part is essential. For example, if players have been exposed to cold weather without adequate protection for an extended length of time, impose a penalty to skills requiring dexterity that scales according to the length of exposure. If players are traveling in the rain, increase the difficulty level of checks made to detect or track nearby foes. Some systems already have such mechanics built in but even for those that don’t such rules can be easily adapted. Steps such as these might be required to motivate your players to respond to the adverse weather conditions plaguing their characters. The goal is to use the weather to more deeply engage the players into the world and the story that’s being created.
2. Engage the senses.
Taste, touch, and smell are all impractical to use when playing an RPG, but you can bring nature to life using your players’ senses of sight and hearing. As is common practice by most DMs, use pictures of the places in which players are adventuring to help them visualize their natural environments. Furthermore, immerse players into their natural world using sound. I am aware that many people have strong feelings on whether or not music should be played while gaming (and I’m not going to touch that debate), but ambient noise is completely different than music, so regardless of any musical feelings you may have you should give this a try, if you’re not already doing so.
Are your characters tromping through a forest? Play a track of a woody glen with birdsong and bubbling water. Are they heading through a narrow mountain pass? The sounds of a blizzard with wind singing over sharp rocks will heighten the tension. Is there a mighty storm brewing? Play a recording of a thunderstorm and keep increasing the volume as time passes. The sound acts as a subtle reminder for the players to take their natural surroundings into account when making in-game decisions as well as engrossing players into the world you’re all working to create. I know there are sound-mixing apps for use during role-playing and I’m sure they work great, but Youtube is much simpler and has any type of ambient noise for which you might be looking. A decent speaker system is also a requirement; don’t just play sounds from a phone, as the quality of the sound will likely just distract rather than engross.
3. Make the flora and fauna engaging.
Go out of your way to make the inhabitants of the natural world interesting, be they plants or animals. This interest comes in the details; the more detailed a description, the most enthusiasm for the subject can be generated. For example, when describing a character, ‘an orc fighter’ is nowhere near as interesting a description as ‘an orc in heavy armor with a bite out of his right ear’. Similarly, more details about nature will lead to a heightened interest; in which of the following would you rather have an adventure: a shady pine thicket dappled by weak sunbeams dancing upon a forest floor thick with fallen boughs and decaying needles, or a forest in which there are some trees and stuff. Show pictures of similar scenes and describe the environment in which your players find themselves in such a way that it allows players to construct the scene in their minds eye.
You don’t need to provide a scientific level of detail; even basic details can go a long way (i.e. it doesn’t take a scientist to make distinctions between an evergreen or a seasonal forest). Furthermore, stock your natural environments with interesting plants and animals. Natural places aren’t empty and abandoned but are teeming with life. Squirrels dart from tree to tree, hares scamper under bushes, birds serenade the sun tucked safely away high in the canopy. I realize that I tend to wax poetic when it comes to nature and as the idea is to engage the players, DMs should always try to aim for that sweet spot between way too much detail and just another generic forest; this sweet spot will vary according to the interests of each individual gaming group.
An interesting setting is a key aspect in any great story. As much of our role-playing adventures take place in nature in some way, it only stands to reason that we should aim to depict our natural environments as compellingly as possible. While this often just means ratcheting up the detail provided to players about their surroundings, it can also come in the form of their natural environment becoming a challenge to be overcome. The natural world is a truly fascinating place; prevent that from being lost when translating it into your narrative.
- Jake is a lover of games and of the great outdoors. He wishes that there was some way to simultaneously play games and hike, but for now enjoys his hobbies separately. When not being an author for High Level Games, he moonlights as a research scientist at Texas A&M University. Read about Four Ways That Video Games Influence How Gamers Play Tabletop RPGs here.
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.